I am a recovering addict serving eight years for nonviolent property crimes that I committed to support my habit. When I’m released next year, I’ll walk out of prison having paid my debt to society.
But according to the state of Florida, I still won’t be able to vote until I’ve paid off all my fines — a difficult task, as I’ll also need to support my children, pay bills and build a new life after prison.
In 2018, voters in Florida overwhelmingly approved an amendment to restore voting rights to convicted felons once freed from prison. The shift — reversing a Jim Crow-era policy that largely targeted Black Floridians — was praised as one of the largest expansions of voting rights since the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Florida amends law
Then, the GOP decided to backtrack. While Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the amendment into law in 2019, he did so with one important caveat: Ex-felons would not be able to vote in elections unless they’ve paid off any remaining fines, fees and court costs.
DeSantis’ bill tracks with a larger trend of states which have, in 2021 alone, passed 33 laws that make it harder for residents to vote. In April, DeSantis signed a sweeping bill that took aim at voting-by-mail and, like Georgia, effectively banned giving voters water and snacks while waiting in line.
None of these provisions seem to be enough for DeSantis who, earlier this month, outlined his plan to create an “elections integrity” office to investigate the largely non-existent problem of voter fraud.
The problem with DeSantis’s caveat is that many ex-offenders reentering society have no way to make financial restitution. Often for the first few years after release, ex-offenders struggle just to afford food, shelter, and clothes. Many companies won’t hire someone with a criminal record, and paying to vote falls low on a list of priorities for the unemployed.
According to the Florida Court Clerks and Comptroller’s office, municipal courts issued more than $1 billion in fines and fees to felons between 2013 and 2018. These charges create a financial burden that prevents people from performing their civic duty. The Miami Herald reported that, out of the nearly 1.4 million Floridians with prior felony convictions, only 80,000 registered to vote in 2020.
Modern-day poll tax
In nearly every state, convicted felons are prohibited from voting during the time of their incarceration, and often during probation or parole. Because of these restrictions, according to the Sentencing Project, “one in 16 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate 3.7 times greater than that of non-African Americans.”
By requiring ex-offenders to pay money before casting a vote, Florida has introduced a modern-day poll tax. After the Civil War, poll taxes were adopted by the Southern states as a way to circumvent the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed former slaves the right to vote.
It was only in 1964, when the 24th Amendment was ratified, that poll taxes were finally prohibited in federal elections. Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that poll taxes for state elections were also unconstitutional.
At the heart of the issue is a fundamental question: Is suffrage a privilege or a right?
Florida may have restored voting rights provisionally, but it’s not good enough; 600,000 people leave the carceral system every year, and 5.17 million Americans have been disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. Those people deserve a voice in helping to choose elected officials who have the power to shape — and reform — the very system that locked them away.
Ryan M. Moser is a recovering addict from Philadelphia serving time in the Florida Department of Corrections for property crimes. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net 2020, he has been published in many literary journals and news sites. ©2021 Tribune Content Agency